Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

  • Sept. 14 (Monday) at 1 PM
  • Discussion Leader: Candace Plotsker-Herman

Rebecca Davitch realizes that she has become the “wrong person.” No longer the “serene and dignified young woman” she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a “style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady.” So she tries to do something about it.

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Booklist Review:

The opening scene in Tyler’s mellifluous new novel presents a tumble of characters coerced into attending a family picnic to celebrate an unexpected engagement. Everyone has a nickname, and the connections seem complicated, but at the center stands a determinedly cheerful, plushly built, and obliviously unfashionable woman in her early fifties. This is Rebecca, or Beck, who cajoles her grumpy stepdaughters and daughter, as well as their attendant husbands, significant others, and offspring, into playing a game of softball even while she’s wondering if perhaps she’s “turned into the wrong person.” Rebecca has unwittingly embarked on a season of discontent as the last of the girls she raised gets set to marry. The clue to her sudden dismay is found in her nickname, which she dislikes. Rebecca, who throws parties for a living, has always been at everyone’s beck and call, and now she wonders if she’s accomplished anything of value. What would her life have been like if she’d married her studious college boyfriend, Will, instead of jilting him and abandoning her studies to marry Joe, a sexy, older divorce with a Baltimore row house, three young, skeptical daughters, and a business based on throwing parties for strangers. She and Joe had one daughter and six years together before he died in a car crash, leaving Rebecca at the helm of the fractious family, which includes Joe’s widower uncle, Poppy, who’s eagerly looking forward to his one-hundredth birthday party. Tyler, who’s never written silkier prose or more charming and gently humorous dialogue, spreads out Rebecca’s story like a banquet, each scene a delectable repast as her marvelous heroine divines the truth about her radiant life. (Reviewed March 1, 2001) -- Donna Seaman

Publishers Weekly Review:

On the first page of Tyler's stunning new novel, Rebecca Davitch, the heroine (and heroine is exactly the right word) realizes that she has become the "wrong person." No longer the "serene and dignified young woman" she was at 20, at 53 Rebecca finds she has become family caretaker and cheerleader, a woman with a "style of dress edging dangerously close to Bag Lady." So she tries to do something about it. In the midst of her busy life as mother, grandmother and proprietor of the family business, the Open Arms (she hosts parties in the family's old Baltimore row house), Rebecca attempts to pick up the life she was leading before she married, back when she felt grownup. She visits her hometown in Virginia, locates the boyfriend she jilted and renews her intellectual interests. But as Rebecca ponders the life-that-might-have-been, the reader learns about the life-that-was. At 20, she left college and abandoned her high school sweetheart to marry a man who already had a large family to support. A year later, she had a baby of her own; five years later, her husband died in an auto accident, and she was left to raise four daughters, tend to her aging uncle-in-law and support them all. And a difficult lot they are, seldom crediting Rebecca for holding her rangy family together. Yet like all of Tyler's characters, they are charming in their dysfunction. And much as one feels for Rebecca, much as one wants her to find love, it's difficult to imagine her leaving or upsetting the family order. Tyler (The Accidental Tourist; Breathing Lessons) has a gift for creating endearing characters, but readers should find Rebecca particularly appealing, for despite the blows she takes, she bravely keeps on trying. Tyler also has a gift genius is more like it for unfurling intricate stories effortlessly, as if by whimsy or accident. The ease of her storytelling here is breathtaking, but almost unnoticeable because, rather like Rebecca, Tyler never calls attention to what she does. Late in the novel, Rebecca observes that her younger self had wanted to believe "that there were grander motivations in history than mere family and friends, mere domestic happenstance." Tyler makes it plain: nothing could be more grand. (May 8) Forecast: A 250,000 first printing seems almost modest considering the charms of Tyler's latest and the devotion of her readers. A Random House audiobook and a large-print edition will appear simultaneously, and the book is a BOMC main selection and an alternate selection of QPB, the Literary Guild, the Doubleday Book Club and Doubleday Large Print. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Library Journal Review:

After recovering from the shock of becoming a widow in her mid-twenties, Rebecca "Beck" Davitch has spent several busy decades occupied with managing both her quirky clan of in-laws and their party-hosting business. She has become the heart and soul of the extended family and of The Open Arms, the family's historic row house, which is still popular as a rental for special occasions though the surrounding neighborhood is deteriorating. At 53, Beck is feeling a little rundown herself. She wonders what became of the serious college student she once was and whether she took the right path when she followed her heart to the altar at 19. Beck thus embarks on a quixotic interior journey, with results both funny and touching, as she explores the differences between being herself and playing the roles assigned to her by the family. Elements common to Tyler's other fiction are present here: a well-rendered Baltimore setting, a large cast of eccentric characters, and a thoughtful presentation of themes related to marriage, aging, and making difficult choices. Together with Tyler's finely tuned prose, they create a satisfying whole for the enjoyment of the author's many fans. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews

/* Starred Review */ The Family Davitch—dazzling and daunting, dismal and dysfunctional—arrives in Tyler's delicious l5th novel (A Patchwork Planet, 1998, etc.).But first meet Rebecca, who, on her way to somewhere less fateful, accidentally wanders into the midst of this Baltimore bedlam and stays for dinner. And beyond, way beyond, and in the process keeps the compulsively discordant Davitches from disintegrating as a family. Not that any of them would ever dream of thanking her for it. At the age of 19, Rebecca marries Joseph Aaron Davitch, 13 years her senior, a union that makes her the instant stepmother of three dark-haired, dark-complected, moody, broody Davitch daughters. In due time she adds to the collection another with the same coloring, disposition, and contentious attitude, as if the genes in her own pool had drowned themselves en masse, cowed by the Davitch invasion. When Joe dies in an automobile accident, Rebecca continues to inherit: an ancient relative by marriage who somehow comes to live with her, plus the Open Arms, a once-elegant, now shambling rowhouse, site of "party-giving for all occasions," the family business. With pluck, resourcefulness, and cleverness she seldom gets credit for, she keeps that, too, from disintegrating. Unhesitatingly, the self-centered Davitches bring their not-inconsiderable problems to her and apply the solutions she suggests, while resenting any attempt she makes, no matter how minor, to edge out from under. At 53, then, in typical Tyler fashion, Rebecca Holmes Davitch suddenly asks herself if she has "turned into the wrong person"—a serious question, and the burden of the novel. To which a clear-eyed, entirely sensible Tyler answer is supplied.Packed with life in all its humdrum complexity—and funny, so funny, the kind that compels reading aloud. A masterful effort from one of our very best. (Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2001)